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Dustin Putman

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Monte Carlo  (2011)
Directed by Thomas Bezucha.
Cast: Selena Gomez, Katie Cassidy, Leighton Meester, Luke Bracey, Cory Monteith, Pierre Boulanger, Andie MacDowell, Brett Cullen, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes.
2011 – 108 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for brief mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 29, 2011.
Fraud. Theft. False Impersonation. Kidnapping. If this sounds like a promising start to a twisty white-knuckle thriller, think again. It's actually just a handful of the crimes committed by three young women vacationing overseas in the rancid teen comedy "Monte Carlo." The mind reels at how a film as misguided as this one is set up at a major studio (20th Century Fox, in this case), cast, shot, edited, and sent out to theaters for mass consumption without a single person involved questioning its immorality and wrong-headed mixed messages. That it's also idiotic, tone-deaf and charmless almost come as asides to the wreckage on display. Thomas Bezucha's (2005's "The Family Stone") direction is not without a little style—his fast zooms and editing tricks give the European locations a certain dreamy mystique—but his screenplay, co-written by April Blair and Maria Maggenti (based on the novel "Headhunters" by Jules Bass), is so beyond the realms of logic and natural human behavior that it might as well have been penned on Neptune. This isn't a wish-fulfillment romantic fantasy. It's an otherworldly farce.

Grace (Selena Gomez) has just graduated from high school and is excitedly preparing for a trip to Paris with her slightly older, slightly wilder best friend Emma (Katie Cassidy) when the other shoe drops: her mom (Andie MacDowell) and stepfather (Brett Cullen) want her morose 21-year-old stepsister Meg (Leighton Meester)—former classmate of Emma's, to boot—to tag along with them to the City of Light. Grace mopes, pouts and protests even as her parents upgrade their plane tickets to first-class, then begrudgingly accepts. Already, Grace is not exactly the most lovable of heroines, but her and her compatriots' actions only get more questionable when they stumble into a luxury hotel and discover that snooty British heiress Cordelia Winthrop Scott (Selena Gomez in a dual role) looks exactly like Grace. Through a series of painfully contrived events, Grace ends up posing as Cordelia. Suddenly the three girls have access to extravagant hotel suites and all of Cordelia's luggage. They dress in her fancy ball gowns. They wear her make-up. They attend soirees. And then, to top it off, they board a private jet to Monte Carlo, where the proper, filthy-rich royals are gearing up for a celebration in Cordelia's honor. Under the guise of her doppelgänger, Grace meets Theo (Pierre Boulanger) and falls for him, but knows that their relationship will be doomed once he discovers her true identity. Meanwhile, Emma starts to realize just how much her country-lovin' boyfriend back in Texas, Owen (Core Monteith), means to her, and Meg finally breaks out of her shell when she is romanced by hunky Australian backpacker Riley (Luke Bracey).

It shouldn't be too difficult to make a frothy movie that is set in exotic locations and aimed squarely at the young-female demographic, yet "Monte Carlo" gets everything wrong. With a ludicrous plot that makes the viewer long for the docudrama-like level of authenticity brought to the same general premise in 2003's "The Lizzie McGuire Movie," the film bypasses sincerity and very nearly turns into a parody of itself—a blatantly unfunny parody, to be clear. Treated as wacky when the things Grace, Emma and Meg do are rather despicable, director Thomas Bezucha has them lie at every turn, steal jewelry worth millions, take advantage of every dishonest perk they can get their hands on, and, to top it all off, bound and gag the real Cordelia when she shows back up at the end and threatens to expose their scheme. "Don't mess with Texas!" Emma snarls at the captive Cordelia at one point, the girl tied to a chair with an apple lodged in her mouth. Yes, it's as unclean and creepily disconcerting as it sounds, the picture inadvertently but clearly defining just what Ugly Americanism is. For all the laws they break, there are no lessons learned by the characters and no consequences after the truth comes out. "I'm no one special, but I wanted to be," Grace says during her obligatory confession, apparently still equating self-worth with the kind of wealth that comes when a person is born into money. Why she would want to be like Cordelia, anyway, is baffling considering the heiress is written—and acts accordingly—as a stuck-up, selfish, belittling, disrespectful ice queen with not one redeeming quality.

If cheating one's way into privilege isn't enough for the impressionable tweens in the audience, here's another valuable message "Monte Carlo" imparts: there is nothing more important in life than finding a boyfriend. Riley, who keeps popping up no matter which city they are in, shows Meg a little attention, and that's all she needs to finally cheer up and come to terms with her dead mother. For Emma, her greatest conflict is in trying to figure out if Owen is the one for her. In an early scene where they are saying their good-byes before the trip and he brings up the topic of marriage, she blows up at him when he doesn't have a ring to slide on her grubby finger. Maybe he ought to rethink things himself. And then there's Grace, who has no deeper interests or aspirations (at least none that are discussed) than to escape her small-town life. At any point still young into their charade, Grace could easily tell the truth and right her wrongs, but she doesn't because she's scared Theo—the boy she likes—might turn his back on her. Let's not even go into the moronic payoff set several months later in Romania, which stretches plausibility past the breaking point and slaps itself right in the face.

"Monte Carlo" should have been a fun confection, passingly diverting if nothing else. Instead, it drags its feet for 108 interminable minutes, sinking all the deeper with each insulting thematic dung-flop it flings at its audience. When it tries to be zany, it instead is tedious. Screwball comedy aspirations are a total miss (in the annals of people who look alike narrowly missing each other as they walk in and out of hotel rooms, where's 1988's Bette Midler-Lily Tomlin charmer "Big Business" when you need it?). Drama is telegraphed in advance or merely ineffectual because the characters are so boring and/or unlikable. The tone and pacing are either lethargic or lifeless, take your pick. And then there's the cast. Selena Gomez (2010's "Ramona and Beezus") has a sweet, optimistic aura about her, but somehow, someway this film strips her of all radiance and drops her into a protagonist who is entitled and unpleasant. Leighton Meester, so engaging in 2010's "Country Strong," is colorless and looks distinctly uninterested as Meg. Lettin' loose a twangy accent, Katie Cassidy (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street") shows the most verve as Emma, but one suspects her blowsy personality has been spayed to the point of infertility in order to keep things PG-rated. As for the trio of male eye-candies, only newcomer Luke Bracey makes a magnetic impression; the other two, including Cory Monteith (TV's "Glee") as Owen, couldn't be more dull. Let's blame the negligence of the writing rather than the abilities of the actors, though. It all comes down to what's on the page; without that, there'd be no movie to make. In regards to the shallow, irresponsible twits filling the screen in "Monte Carlo," a romp in war-torn Liberia would have been preferable.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman